By Imran Shah (class of 2018, Pharmacy+USP alum)
Among the first acts of joining a community, or maybe even before joining, is finding out what the community is about. So, as an enthusiastic and excited freshmen, I spent a fair bit of time finding out what USP was about and what it stood for. Among the discussions I had on this topic, one particular discussion stood out because it was held to discuss what USP had become.
It was a discussion titled ‘Imagining USP – USP’s Identity, Relevance and Future’, held during the farewell event for our then-Director, Prof John Richardson (or JR, as he’s affably known), as he was ending his term as Director.
I had recorded the discussion for a friend, with JR’s permission, but upon news of his passing, I thought it fitting to reminisce what a fun and insightful discussion it was. This article is in tribute to JR, by sharing some of his thoughts on the programme he directed for 6 years.
“I was never really convinced about the houses. I was one of those who, deep in my heart, I thought this cannot be a good thing. It’s going to lead to them all being stupid.”
“Sometimes I think this identity thing is just a waste of time. Why don’t we just get on with doing what we think is important, and that will show who we are.”
JR directed USP at a critical time, when it moved from Block ADM into Cinnamon College at UTown. Students at that time wondered if the move would change the nature of USP – How would a residential college fit into the academic programme?
Three years on, when this discussion was held, the same question seemed to be on everyone’s mind, especially with the entrance of Yale-NUS and the impending General Education pillars.
When defining what the programme is, we often focus on picking out key aspects of the programme, just like how the rebranding company did.
However, JR had a different stance.
In the heat of a discussion on identity and how we should portray ourselves, a member of the administration said that marketing could not be incongruent with what the community did. A student then responded that we should then focus the marketing material on the students, so that they would know what USP stands for, and shape Student Life around that.
JR’s response was classic: “for a programme that stands for independent mindedness, and educated people, we don’t want to be sending too many internal messages about what you’ve got to be as a USP student.
“I mean that’s against the whole programme. It really is!” – as if we had to be convinced this wasn’t him being sarcastic.
“And that’s what we have to be able to be in USP: being wrong. That’s part of being a USP person, to be wrong at times. And there’s no shame in it.”
I suppose the good professor relished the uniqueness of USP, to the extent that he was excited to hear some students viewing the programme with cynicism. He was wary of identity-building simply because it was a step towards what he called ‘tribalism’.
To JR, scholars needed to be independent thinkers. They could not afford to identify with a particular group. He wanted USP students to be critical of the system. He wanted USP to even contain some students “who can’t stand it, certain parts of it, and think it’s all stupid”. (A comment which makes me smile and remember batch mates who used to criticise the ludicrity of such a ‘scholarly community’.)
“And I think I was wrong about the houses. I was never really convinced about the houses. I was one of those who, deep in my heart, I thought this cannot be a good thing. It’s going to lead to them all being stupid.
“But in that respect, I think I was wrong. I haven’t seen any of those ill effects. It’s seem to have become quite a beneficial way of organising the students.
“And that’s what we have to be able to be in USP: being wrong. That’s part of being a USP person, to be wrong at times. And there’s no shame in it.
“Might be bit of a shame if you’re too grumbly about it, like I am.”
Listening to the recording of that discussion, I realise that JR liked to hear students’ thoughts more than he liked to share his. ‘You really think that, do you?’, he’d respond. And then we’ll all go quiet waiting for more comments, but there’d be none.
This reminded me of his comments during our Brainfood+ sessions, in which we read T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland. He’d say ‘Hmmm, that could very well be what he meant’. Although, honestly, that could’ve been to mask his disappointment with the class, especially when Literature students couldn’t remember Shakespeare by heart.
“Why don’t we just get on with doing what we think is important, and that will show who we are.”
He ended the discussion with something apt to end this article with.
In response to whether he was going to do anything after relinquishing his directorship, other than lead the NUS Literature department, and in remembrance of how he helped this closet Literature-lover appreciate Literature, JR artfully quoted Shakespeare and said —
“tis enough, ‘twill serve”.
Prof John Richardson was former Director of USP (2009 – 2015). He most recently taught Representing War, and was always enthusiastic about mentoring students. He constantly volunteered to lead Brainfood+ groups and was most beloved by his students and colleagues. He was a mentor to many staff and students in USP, and a dear friend to us all.
For more tributes from the USP Community, please refer to Remembering Prof John Richardson.